The U.S. embassy in Cuba, operating only on essential staff since the State Department confirmed more than two dozen diplomats and their families suffered health attacks of unknown origin there, hosted some of the country’s most prominent anti-communist dissidents for a Fourth of July celebration Thursday.
Since it resumed operations under President Barack Obama in 2015, the American embassy in Havana has held a small Independence Day celebration annually, typically a few days before the actual holiday. Former Charge d’Affairs Jeffrey DeLaurentis began the tradition of inviting pro-democracy activists to his residence in 2015 for a small party, which successor Philip Goldberg continued this week.
The celebration occurred hours before the U.S. State Department confirmed a new case injury among the few essential staff still at the embassy, the 26th such incident of an individual suffering what is believed to be mild brain damage in Cuba after reportedly hearing strange, high-pitched sounds. The State Department has referred to the incidents as “health attacks,” while the Cuban government has dismissed the claims as “science fiction” and accused the affected diplomats of faking symptoms. The State Department revealed that a similar case was documented in Shanghai, China.
The U.S.-based Martí Noticias spoke to some of the dissidents invited, including the leader of the Estado de SATS, Antonio Rodiles, former political prisoner Marta Beatriz Roque, and the head of the Ladies in White dissident group, Berta Soler.
Roque expressed gratitude for being able to experience the free atmosphere of the United States within the embassy. “It is the only day of the year that all of us can meet there and have a conversation without being repressed by authorities,” she told Marti. Rodiles said he appreciated the opportunity to advocate for Cuban political prisoners, noting, in particular, the cases of Dr. Eduardo Cardet – serving a three-year sentence in prison for not signing a condolence book following Fidel Castro’s death – and Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, undergoing a hunger strike in prison after being arrested over a private environmental study.
“The issue of political prisoners is one that is not forgotten by needs more support,” Rodiles told Martí. “That is part of the message I am transmitting to anyone and in any forum possible.”
The U.S. State Department called for the swift release of Cardet and Ruiz-Urquiola on Tuesday.
“The cases of Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola and Dr. Eduardo Cardet … are just two examples of how the Cuban government continues to silence the peaceful opposition of its own citizens,” the State Department said in a statement. “We call on the Government of Cuba to release all political prisoners immediately and to stop its arbitrary detention of Cuban activists and independent thinkers who criticize their government through peaceful means.”
Cardet is the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), a Cuban anti-communist group that champions Christian human rights values.
Berta Soler, who leads another Christian resistance group, the Ladies in White, also told Martí she was happy to celebrate with the Americans. Soler’s group protests the regime by attending Catholic mass every Sunday wearing white and carrying the images of detained political prisoners with them, triggering brutal beatings, public shaming, and routine arrests. Soler was arrested last Sunday yet again.
“The party, we have to be very grateful to the U.S. government and the American officials,” she told Martí, confirming that “a small group of human rights activists were invited.”
The event was the first of its kind under Goldberg, who arrived in Havana with extensive experience in handling problematic foreign governments. Goldberg served as ambassador to Bolivia until September 2008, representing American interests in hostile territory led by Bolivarian socialist President Evo Morales. Morales declared Goldberg persona non grata for meeting with the government of a rogue province that demanded Morales not impose his socialist economic policies on its local businesses. Goldberg also served as ambassador to the Philippines, where he served uneventfully until the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. Duterte complained Goldberg was too vocal in championing human rights, referring to him as bakla, a Filipino slur for gay men, and lamenting, “Son of a bitch, he really annoys me.”
Trump nominated Goldberg to run the Havana embassy in late 2017.